Edith Fenn-Blake knew that she could only find the house at night. Rumors around the village insisted that the very structure itself moved with the travelling moon, careful never to linger in one place lest the rays of sunrise should touch its thatched roof and burn it down. She also knew that it would be in the shadiest, most remote part of the marshy woods to the west of the village, where not even candlelight could shine properly. The being that lived inside was said to love such darkness, the kind thick enough to slide down one’s throat and strangle.
It would be a lie to say that Edith wasn’t afraid. She had been walking through dense, shadowed swampland for nearly an hour, listening to the unsettling sounds of crickets, frogs, and the swishes of alligator tails dipping below the murky black water. Her lantern had dimmed to nothing despite the fact that she had just refilled it upon venturing out, and now the moon was her only source of light, the feeblest sheet of gray in perpetual dark. Still, she pressed on through the sticky muck and prickly cattails, choosing to believe the rumors that those who sought the witch’s house would always make it there alive as long as they had a deal to make with her. Edith clutched her own deal tightly to her chest, feeling it ooze thickly through the burlap bag she carried it in.
She knew she was close when the heavy, green smells of the marshlands changed to the startling and far more unpleasant stink of rotting meat. It hung so copiously on the air that Edith could have sworn that what little fog she could see had a blood-red tint to it. Holding her breath, she trudged forward through the sludge, hearing the sounds of swamp creatures grow fainter until only her own splashes reached her ears. Even the crickets refused to sing.
At last, she caught a glimpse of light in the dense darkness. Like a will-o’-the-wisp, it seemed to hover on the air like a disembodied candle flame, flickering an ominous red. The closer she drew, the more of its surroundings appeared in her night-accustomed eyes. The crimson flame did indeed sit upon a plain white candle, which melted softly into a black candlestick placed on the windowsill of a simple, decrepit, weatherworn hut. It sat in a water-filled clearing at an angle that did not appear structurally sound, its side weighed down by a crawling mass of dark ivy and spiny pink bromeliad flowers. The dew that dripped from their leaves gleamed like blood in the red candlelight.
Standing at the edge of the clearing, Edith found it very difficult to breathe. It truly felt like the oily darkness was trying to slip down her throat and choke the life from her. The air itself tasted like offal. She could not turn back now, however. After the deed she had done to get herself out this far in the marsh, it would be pointless and unforgivable to retreat out of fear. So, steeling herself, she crossed the congealed moat, sinking in right up to her waist at its deepest point. Small, fast-swimming creatures in the water brushed by her ankles, and Edith could not help but think of alligators. No, she believed the rumors – no harm would come to her as long as she had her deal in hand. Shivering, she raised the bag protectively over her head and walked without pause until she had made it to the crooked front door of the witch’s house. With her skirt soaked heavily in pond slime and her feet still sunken in it, she raised a trembling hand and, as per the rules, knocked on the door six times in pairs.
Knock-knock, knock-knock, knock-knock.
Almost immediately, there came an answer from behind the door.
“Yes, come in, Eedie, dearie. I’ve been expecting you. Come in and tell old Nana what you wish for.”
The voice might have sounded like that of a cheery old woman had it not been for the churning, clogged gurgle and the deep, lionlike echo that hide in the undertones of each sickly sweet word. There was a small click, and the door slowly swung inward through the ankle-high water that spilled into the lopsided hut.
Edith was sorely tempted to run back into the dark and jagged trees, which suddenly seemed far more preferable to what lay inside, but the rumors reminded her what would happen if she backed out. She could still see the bodies – or the shredded pieces of them – that they pulled from the river not a day ago. Grasping her bag like a good-luck charm, she crossed the watery threshold into the witch’s house.
The smell was even worse inside, and Edith could plainly seen why. The field-dressed corpses of squirrels, foxes, and what might have been a large dog hung by their tails from the beams crossing the thatched roof, their fluids consistently drip-drip-dripping into the water. Tanned pelts, mounted antlers, and animals skulls of many species decorated the walls, often sporting odd objects like feathers, tiny gems, or hooks full of teeth around their edges. Shelves sat crookedly on the tilted walls, carrying a few books with unreadable titles, tools made of rock and bone, and jars full of thick, opaque liquid. Sometimes one of these jars floated past Edith’s ankles, and she thought she saw some decayed body part or fetus-like animal submerged inside.
Treading carefully, Edith approached a doorway covered by a veil of strings as thin as spider silk and adorned with decayed yellow fingernails instead of beads. From behind, that unnerving voice boomed again.
“Yes, yes, come right in, Eedie, my dear. Don’t be afraid. Nana won’t bite.”
The chilling little laugh that followed made Edith pause, but she shook off her reluctance and pushed her way through the veil, grimacing as she felt all the chipped and moldy little nails graze her skin.
The sight she beheld in the next room would have been enough to drive the sanest man into the darkest lunacy imaginable.
The witch sat at the end of the small room, possibly in a chair, though it was difficult to tell for sure given the water level and her enormous girth. Everything below her head seemed nothing more than a wad of moist, writhing flesh, colored scarlet in the candlelight and marred with boils, bulging veins, and crawling black beetles. Her arms were thin and bony like twigs stuck in her massive, slug-like body. Edith counted almost fifteen capillary-thin fingers per hand. The neck matched the arms in leanness, bending like a vulture’s and ending with a head the exact shape of an oversized potato. Her eyes were full black and beady, almost disappearing in the folds around them, and her mouth stretched quite literally from one ear to the other.
“Ah, Eedie, little child,” the witch said in an almost caring tone. “How wonderful to see you. I hope you are doing well. Oh, and my sincerest apologies about the mess. You know how finicky swamp waters can be during certain moon cycles.”
She laughed again, throwing her head back and widening her mouth to reveal a glistening, cavernous gullet behind rows of tiny, brown, triangular teeth.
Edith was struck silent at first, so horrified at this unthinkably grotesque creature seated before her. Then she swallowed, trying not to gag at the taste of the house going down her throat again, and forced out the words she had practiced on the way here.
“Th-th-thank you, ma’am,” she stammered, “f-for allowing me i-into your home.”
The witch lowered her head to face Edith again, her eyes nearly lost beneath her wrinkles when she smiled. “No trouble, my dear, no trouble at all. I love my visitors. I’ve been getting so many lately, wanting my help. It makes me feel so happy, you know? So loved… But enough about that. You have something you wish to ask of me, yes?” Her tiny eyes fell on the bag Edith had forgotten she was holding. It was only a little damp now, and it had stopped dripping.
“Y-yes, ma’am,” the woman stammered, wringing the loose burlap and cradling the lump at the bottom like a baby’s head. “I… I was t-told that… that you mend b-broken hearts.”
Though it seemed impossible, the witch grinned even wider. “I mend many broken things, my dear. Bones, minds, spirits… and, yes, I do mend hearts. They are my specialty as you can no doubt see.” She swept one of her bony arms around in a grandiose manner. Edith managed to pull her eyes away from the witch’s awful visage and focus instead on the wall behind her.
It was covered in dozens of human hearts. Dangling from strings pinned to the wood, they were all in various states of decay from freshly removed to nothing more than blackened, shriveled prunes. Some were laced up with little white stiches; some were driven through with long brown nails; some were filled to the brim with a liquid binder than had hardened into stone. All of them beat and pulsed silently on their strings as if they were cocoons about to hatch.
“But I am confused, Eedie, dear,” said the witch, startling Edith from her rapt study of the heart wall. “I sense no broken heart in you. You have a loving husband, your children adore you, and your friends treat you like a beloved sister. What could you possibly need me to mend?”
The woman gulped and gripped the bag more tightly, finding it difficult to look the hideous creature in the eye.
“It… it’s not m-my heart that needs mending,” she said. “It… it’s my daughter’s.”
A fold of skin above the witch’s left eye raised like an eyebrow. “Oh?”
Edith nodded quickly. “Y-yes, you see… She had a fiancé, a kind, generous man, or, at least, we thought he was… Anyway, th-they were to be married not a fortnight ago, but, at the ceremony… he was nowhere to be found. Nor was the dowry my husband was to give him in exchange for our daughter’s hand. It was… quite clear what had happened. He had stolen the gold and run off, leaving our daughter alone at the altar. As it is… she has not left her bed in nearly a week and refuses to eat anything we give her. This morning, she said that… she wanted to die, that she would… starve herself if she must, so terrible was it to live without the man she thought she loved. I… hated seeing her so miserable. I feared waking up one of these mornings to find my beautiful little girl… to find her…” She refused to say it. Sniffing deeply and blinking away her tears, she looked back at the witch. “I had to do something. I heard strange stories whispered around the village about a witch that could mend what was broken. I learned the methods it took to find her and the enormous risk it meant in getting there. I even saw what happened to the poor folks who… didn’t please her, supposedly. But it was the promise from others that she mended broken hearts that steeled my resolve. If anyone could save my daughter… it would be you. And, so, here I am, asking with all my soul… Please, please mend my daughter’s broken heart. Heal her and give her back the happiness she so deserves. Please.”
Edith stopped, winded from her emotional outpouring. She stared desperately at the witch, waiting for an answer. The creature stared back for a long moment. When she finally responded, it was after a long sigh and a slow shake of her malformed head.
“Ah, such compassion,” she said, “but so very misguided. My dearest Eedie, I’m sorry to tell you this, but I cannot mend your daughter’s heart.”
Edith’s stomach fell with a splash into the water around her ankles. “Wh-what? B-but I thought you- I thought you said-”
“I do mend broken hearts,” said the witch, “when they are presented to me by the owner of said heart. See how my children on the walls twitch and gasp for air? They were still alive when I held them in my loving, restorative hands. I cannot mend a secondhand heart like the one lying limp and rotting in that bag of yours. It is broken, yes, but it is also quite dead. Not even I can mend something back from dead, Eedie, dear.”
The rest of Edith’s organs tumbled from her body, leaving her cold and pale. “No, no, th-that’s not true. Mary, sh-she’s still alive, she was still alive when I-”
“Your daughter was dead the moment you split her chest open and ripped her unprepared heart from its cage.”
Edith was starting to shake, the damp bag in her hands growing heavier and slipping from her numb fingers. “But… but sh-she wouldn’t get up… she wouldn’t leave the bed… so I thought, if I did instead… if I brought it to you… th-then…”
The witch shook her head again and sighed. “I’m sorry, my sweet little Eedie. Some things cannot be fixed, especially when you have broken them beyond repair.”
There really was a splash as Edith dropped the bag into the water. It filled up quickly and sank down into the murky depths. As a misty red cloud and a few dark bubbles foamed up through the liquid, something small and burgundy floated to the surface, bobbing like an apple with a large chunk bitten out of it. Falling to her knees, Edith dipped her hands into the water and cradled the still heart, watching as tears rained down around it.
“Mary… oh, God, my Mary, my baby girl… what have I done… no, no, Mary, what have I done…”
“Oh, dearie,” said the witch. There was a rather loud sloshing as the dark water rippled out around her. To her great shock, Edith felt long bony arms wrap around her as the witch pulled her into an embrace. She stiffened against the creature’s vile body, feeling pustules burst onto her clothes and little insects scatter over her hair. “Don’t cry, my love, don’t be so sad,” cooed the witch, caressing Edith’s hair in a motherly way. “Do you hear that? That sound like a thousand mirrors shattering at once? That’s your heart, Eedie, dear; that’s your heart breaking.”
Edith forgot about the witch’s unwanted embrace and looked back at the dead heart in her hands. Each time she remembered her daughter’s face – her withered blue eyes, the circles that darkened them, the fear that filled them as her mother drove the knife into her chest – Edith felt another piece of her own heart fall off into an endless, black abyss.
“There, there, all is not lost, my child,” said the witch softly into her ear. “I mend broken hearts, remember? That means that I could mend yours… if you would like me to.”
Edith grew quiet, the heart tumbling from her shaky fingers and floating away in the stagnant water. Blinking her bloodshot eyes, she glanced up at the witch’s smiling face. “Y-you can?”
The witch nodded. “As good as new. You just have to say the word. What do you say, Eedie, my love? Would you like Nana to make it all better?”
Edith sat motionless in the cold, thick water, trembling in the witch’s revolting hug. Her entire being felt like one large point of pain on the face of a dark, desolate world. She could feel it moving inside her, growing and turning to rot, threatening to consume her until it would have been merciful to just dunk her head into the dark pool around her and drown. Was this how her daughter felt in those last few days? Was this how Edith was doomed to feel for the rest of her life? Could she go on living with such pain?
Finally, in a whisper choked with tears, she said, “Please. Fix it.”
The witch let out a deep, unnerving laugh and wrapped her arms more tightly around the stricken woman. “As you wish.”
Sudden pain erupted in Edith’s chest. She gasped, tasting hot copper, feeling it slide up her tongue and dribble down the middle of her chin. Quaking more violently than before, she slowly looked down and saw the witch’s long fingers buried beneath her left breast. They wriggled around in her flesh, pushing in until the entire hand had disappeared into Edith’s body, pouring a dark cascade of blood into the water. Edith felt the terrible fingers coil like centipedes around something inside her, something warm and beating. With a sharp, moist squelch, they tore it from her body.
Edith’s vision dimmed around the edges, and all the sounds in the world fell to a low ringing. She saw her own heart, writhing with life and torn right down the middle, held in front of her face, the witch’s insectile fingers gripping it mercilessly. Feeling terribly weak, she slumped from the witch’s embrace and leaned back against her foul body, popping cysts and squishing a few beetles against the fetid flesh.
“Now, now, just hang in there, Eedie, my dear,” said the witch from very far away. “Nana’s gonna fix it all better, I promise. Just keep those pretty eyes open. Keep them open for Nana, okay?”
Edith tried her damnedest to do as the witch told her. She focused her tunneling vision on her detached organ, still miraculously beating the last of its juices out the severed arteries. The witch had retrieved a long silver needle and some white thread, and, with surprising dexterity and grace, she began to sew up the tear in the middle of the heart. Edith watched, fascinated, as the lines of stitches were drawn across the red flesh. After a while, the pain in her chest subsided, the blood falling from her mouth lessening to a drip. By the time the witch had finished, she reached up to touch her chest and found that the hole was gone. It did not hurt anymore, but she was left feeling strangely empty and a little cold.
“There we go,” said the witch, helping Edith to her feet. “See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Edith shook her head vaguely, her eyes glassy and struggling to focus, staring around as if she had no idea where she was. Meanwhile, the witch slithered heavily through the water back to her wall of hearts. With the very needle and thread she had used to mend it, she hung Edith’s heart up with the others, the organ still silently pulsing against its skeletal stitches. Satisfied, the witch sat down in the water and smiled at her confused houseguest.
“Does it hurt anymore, Eedie, dear?” she asked.
Edith looked back at her and slowly shook her head. “No, ma’am.”
“Are you still sad?”
Another slow shake of the head. “No, ma’am.”
“Do you miss Mary?”
The woman blinked. “Who?”
The witch smiled, showing all of her wicked little teeth. “Good… Well, it’s been lovely having you here, my child, but it’s time to bid you adieu. The moon is moving quickly tonight, and I must catch up with it before the dawn catches me. You understand. Now run along, scurry back to your little village, don’t dawdle.”
Edith opened her mouth to say something only to quickly shut it, unsure of exactly what she wanted to say. All she knew for sure was that she was tired, physically and spiritually, and that she wanted to go home, maybe spend a few hours in the church confessional repenting for… whatever it was she had just done. Turning on hesitant feet, she passed through the fingernail curtain and waded in silence towards the front door. However, just as she pushed it open into the noiseless black night, the witch called out to her from behind.
“Oh, Eedie, before you go, I just want you to know this… Do you remember the bodies they found in the river, how they reasoned that they had somehow been my doing? Let me be clear with you. I mend what is broken. I have never broken a single thing in my life. Not a bone, not a mind, and certainly not a human life. However… whatever happens to the heartless soul that leaves my house… well, that is beyond my control. I suppose alligators are just… drawn… to the smell of a freshly opened body.” A laugh, a deep, sinister, knowing laugh. “Goodbye, Eedie, my love.”
As a chill ran up her spine like a long, bony finger, Edith spun around, only to find that the door – and the house she had come out of – was completely gone. No hanging carcasses, no flickering red candlelight, no monstrous witch. She stood alone in the center of an empty black pond, the moon shining balefully on the water like fresh tar, the only smells present being swamp muck and vegetation.
Before she had a chance to regain her senses, ripples glided over her ankles. Falling deathly still, Edith looked around and saw a dozen little pairs of stars dotting the water’s edge, round and glinting like hungry white eyes. As she let out a single, horrified breath, all the little stars simultaneously dipped into the muck, sending one final wave of ripples her way.
For one last moment, all was perfectly silent.
Credit To – MercuryCoatedVeins